Italians struggling to make Europa League impact

LONDON, Nov 30 (Reuters) - Not so long ago Italy had a stranglehold on the UEFA Cup but the country seems to have fallen out of love with the competition's descendant and Serie A's four sides are having a hard time in this season's Europa League.

Juventus, Napoli, Sampdoria and Palermo have, between them, won a paltry two of their 16 group games and go into the penultimate round on Wednesday and Thursday in danger of failing to advance to the last-32 knockout stage.

Between 1989 and 1999 Italian clubs appeared in 10 of the 11 UEFA Cup finals, with four of them all-Italian affairs.

Juventus won the final three times but they head for Lech Poznan in Group A on Wednesday hard-hit by injuries and desperate for a win.

Juventus have drawn all four games, leaving them three points adrift of Poznan and Manchester City, who host Salzburg.

An improvement in form has taken Juventus to third in Serie A but the Turin side are not yet ready to relinquish their European hopes.

"The Europa League for us is an important objective, also because it gives everyone the chance to play," said winger Simone Pepe, who scored in Saturday's 1-1 draw with Fiorentina.

Manchester City, struggling to find any consistency from their multi-million-pound squad in the Premier League, are finding life smoother in Europe.

"European games are more strategic, almost like games of chess. There's a lot more emphasis on tactics," said their Spain midfielder David Silva.


Napoli, Sampdoria and Palermo are, like Juventus, all sitting in third place in their groups.

Napoli have three points and, with Liverpool on eight and Steaua Bucharest on five, they still have work to do in Group K.

Sampdoria are growing in confidence ahead of their trip to Group I leaders PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday when the Dutch side, with 10 points, look likely to advance.

Palermo host Sparta Prague in Group F on Thursday needing to win to have any chance of progressing behind already-qualified CSKA Moscow.

Holders Atletico Madrid can make sure of their place in the last 32 with a win at home on Wednesday to Aris Thessaloniki, who beat them 1-0 in Greece in September.

Second in Group B, a point behind Bayer Leverkusen, Atletico need to pick themselves up after a 3-2 loss at home to Espanyol at the weekend. "It's the most important match of the month and we have to win so we can progress," said president Enrique Cerezo.

Germany have not won the competition since Schalke 04 triumphed in the last of the two-legged UEFA Cup finals in 1997 but, with Stuttgart already through, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund have the chance to take Bundesliga representation to three.

Dortmund go into Thursday's game against Karpaty Lviv having opened up a seven-point lead in the Bundesliga but it has been harder work in Europe.

They have five points in a tough Group J, with PSG (eight) and Sevilla (nine), who meet in Paris, setting the pace.

Group B leaders Bayer Leverkusen, who beat Rosenborg 4-0 at home in their first group match, are expecting a tougher game in Norway on Wednesday, when a win would send the Germans through.